Wilbraham – the unknown genius

As Aaron Wilbraham is starting for Crystal Palace in the Premier League today, here is something I wrote about the man after he left Norwich City.

 

There were raised eyebrows when he was signed by the club in January of 2011. Our promotion bid (or at least the playoff bid) was starting to gather steam, and people were seeing us as contenders. Grant Holt was kicking on and scaring defences, Simeon Jackson was working hard and the goals would come. Then we brought him in. Wilbraham’s signing seemed like a step backwards. Then I saw him play and it seemed like a colossal leap backwards. We lumped the ball at him. Tut tut tut.

Eventually the reason for his signing became clear. Grant Holt can’t play 90 minutes twice a week, no matter how much we may want him to. This, however, did not justify his signing. Wilbraham did not look like Holt; he was slighter and taller, like Grant if you stretched him on a medieval rack. Wilbraham did not scare defenders like Holt; there was no surprising turn of pace, no physicality, no guile, and no finesse. Wasted money, if you asked me. He scored against Leicester, a great game, but not one that I remember primarily for a Wilbraham goal. From what I remember, I thought it was a lucky first touch and a deflected shot. Maybe it was. It doesn’t matter anymore, that win was vital.

I thought he would go in the summer. He isn’t a Premier League striker, I would say to people. We need that part of the wage bill that he takes up, we need more quality. Around the start of February, Lambert said that he had ‘fended off’ interest for Wilbraham. I snorted. Let him go. Not good enough. He came on against Everton for his first Premier League appearance, at 1-0 up. I groaned. Paul Lambert had dug his own grave with that change, if Everton equalised then how were we going to get a goal through Alby? Then they equalised. Then I got angry. I confess this; I was wrong.

#Wilbrahamovic. The tide turned when he was given a nickname. In my understanding, the name came from Elliot Bennett and Bradley Johnson winding him up, trying to get it trending on Twitter. It seemed like a cruel joke, comparing a lower-league player like him with the class of Zlatan. It made him seem like a comedy figure, and this is telling. It is one of the reasons why he has been important; he is a good person to have around. You see him with the subs, warming up, laughing. You see him in training, smiling and joking. No-one seems to have a bad word to say about him from the dressing room; players like Alby have been key to the spirit of our squad. At each end-of-season dinner Paul Lambert has spoken about the importance of players like Matty Gill, and Michael Nelson, and Wilbrahamovic.

Then he started playing. No matter what you think of Steve Morison, there is no getting away from the fact that he had a bad run of form. In my opinion, Alby took full advantage of this, starting at Stoke. The game itself was dire, speaking to people as we were leaving the Britannia we rolled out all the old Stoke City clichés (‘Rugby game’ etc.), and the only bright point seemed to be Wilbraham’s performance. He controlled the ball well, he put himself about; all in all he changed the game. He gave us a point of attack, a point of calm, and led the fightback. He looked hungry, something which, at that point in time, Steve Morison didn’t.

At Fulham he scored his goal. He deserved it. Every second of that moment made me happy. It summed him up so perfectly in my head. It took a lot of hard work. He missed a couple of chances, difficult chances against a top goalkeeper admittedly, but this is the Premier League, and he isn’t good enough. Then it happened. Bit of hard work, get in the right position, and get a massive deflection. Wilbrahamovic scored a Premier League goal, and he deserved every second of that moment. His best game, however, was yet to come. Partnered up front with Grant Holt at Spurs, he looked first class. Those international centre halves didn’t know what had hit them; the pair of big lads up front gave them nightmares, and Alby was integral to one of the greatest performances of a great season, a colossal performance. For that day he was truly Wilbrahamovic – a Premier League striker – and we loved every minute of it.

When we look back on the all-time cult heroes of Norwich City FC, we won’t talk about Aaron Thomas Wilbraham. Twenty-eight appearances and two goals do not make for a legend of the club. He is not a classy player. When he runs he is all arms and legs, like he is fighting against the air around him. He is not athletic; he doesn’t look like a football player. He doesn’t nutmeg people (not on purpose anyway), he doesn’t have any tricks or even good ball control, and he rarely takes people on. He was never integral to promotion or survival. Despite all this, he was one of my players of a memorable season. He makes me happy. He looks like he enjoyed every second of playing for our club, he works his socks off every minute, and he never stops smiling. I have eaten my words. I love him. He has scored in every tier of the Football League, and I, for one, would never begrudge the man that.

Long live Wilbrahamovic. He will be missed.

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Dinamo – Lokomotiv: Petrescu’s turnaround

This weekend, we witness the long awaited return of the Russian Premier League after the winter break. Fine – long awaited by me, maybe not by you. In fact, not even that long awaited by me, the exceptional results for the Russian clubs in the Europa League (I have been without internet over here, so haven’t had a chance to get anything down about it as yet) has left me relatively sated.

The RPL, however, returns! This weekend. With a potential whimper. The fixture list has let me down to an extent; the only game that has stood out is Dinamo against Lokomotiv on Saturday (13:30 UTC).

Dinamo Moscow are a strange commodity. They seem to destroy themselves with considerable ease, and relatively regularly. Their early season form was nothing if not terrible, and Dan Petrescu, who seemed to have been gifted somewhat of a poisoned chalice when he took over, was under pressure very early in his reign at the club. Dinamo’s results, however, have picked up extraordinarily since the early teething pains. Petrescu’s team have lost only once since a foul-tempered affair against Anzhi on the 7th of October. This run hasn’t been a stroll either, they have been impressive results; a 5-1 away victory against Spartak, a 3-0 win against Rubin, and most recently a 2-1 away defeat of surprise packages Terek. This run also includes the controversial, abandoned 3-0 victory against Zenit (Dinamo goalkeeper Anton Shunin was burnt by a flair thrown from the crowd), admittedly, but nonetheless, their form has started turning heads. It pays testament to the competitive nature of this year’s Russian Premier League that this streak has only taken Dinamo up to ninth, two points behind Kuban in fourth.

So what was the catalyst for this turnaround? In my mind, it boils down to two players; Kevin Kuranyi and Aleksandr Kokorin. At the start of the season, Petrescu seemed to be trying to rotate the two, playing Semshov in behind one of them. Thankfully, the Romanian abandoned this plan and started playing the pair of them together up front – and Dinamo’s form improved. Kokorin is not an out and out striker; he does the donkey work, but this season has started getting in the right areas, and his overall finishing seems to have improved dramatically over the last couple of seasons. Kuranyi is the opposite. Kevin Kuranyi is one of the most frustrating footballers alive today. He is lazy, niggly, and completely uninvolved the vast majority of the time. He also, reportedly, picks up an incredibly large wage packet. However, he is first class in the box. He is born to finish. The two of them work together, chalk and cheese, and Petrescu knows it. Finally.

Otherwise, Dinamo have a relatively solid squad, if generally unspectacular; Anton Shunin and Roman Berezovsky are both solid in goal, Fernandez and Granat are capable, if not outstanding central defenders, and Ecuadorian midfielder Christian Noboa has the ability to run games if given the chance. Their real star is Balazs Dzsudzsak, a tricky winger with an excellent cross and shot, who has reportedly been on a number of high-level teams shopping lists.

The game against Lokomotiv will be an interesting one. Will Dinamo self-destruct after the winter break? Possibly, but there should be more faith in Dan Petrescu’s skills as a manager than that; he has proven himself capable of turning things around, and it seems as if he has galvanised a previously fractured squad into a more rounded unit. This, however, is Dinamo. Petrescu could be gone next week.

Samba leaves – Anzhi crumble?

Today the rumours of Christopher Samba leaving Anzhi Makhachkhala’s Spanish training camp were confirmed as true, with the Congolese international joining Queens Park Rangers on a four-and-a-half year deal, worth a reported £100,000 a week plus bonuses and add-ons. The transfer fee (according to transfermarkt.co.uk) is £13.2 million, less than a million pounds more than Anzhi paid Blackburn Rovers for him less than a year ago. What does the move of the central defender, described by QPR boss Harry Redknapp as ‘a monster’, mean for Anzhi’s Russian Premier League and Europa League campaigns?

Going into the winter break Anzhi sit second in the league, two points behind CSKA Moscow and three ahead of third-placed Zenit, with each club also having an identical +16 goal difference. So far this season Anzhi have conceded just eighteen goals in the league, only one more than CSKA. Samba’s departure, however is likely to change this. All season Guus Hiddink has selected his recognised best two central defenders as much as possible, Chris Samba and Joao Carlos, signed from Blackburn and Genk respectively, and this partnership has impressed in both domestic and European competition, including excellent clean sheets against CSKA, Udinese and Liverpool in recent months. When without either one of these, however, Anzhi have certainly looked more fragile, no more so than in the 3-1 loss to Young Boys Bern in the Europa League in early December. In that game, Samba was substituted at half time and replaced by Kamil Agalarov, with Bern taking a 2-1 lead just 5 minutes after this change. That goal illustrates the reasons why Samba will be such a big loss for Anzhi in the coming months; the Anzhi defence looked all at sea, lacking in organisation and leadership, with too many defenders standing around ball-watching. Those forty-five minutes away at Young Boys epitomises the problem that Guus Hiddink now faces without Samba – firstly, Samba is a born leader, a quality clearly recognised by Harry Redknapp, and secondly, he is experienced in top league football, instilling confidence in his defensive partners, a confidence needed to keep clean sheets against teams of the quality of CSKA, Udinese and Liverpool. Christopher Samba makes the rest of the Anzhi backline look a lot better than they are; Joao Carlos, Rasim Tagirbekov (the first choice left-back) and Kamil Agalarov (or Arsenii Logashov) are all good players, but they are not champions.

Guus Hiddink’s new challenge, a challenge which seems to have taken him a little by surprise if the Russian press is to be believed, is that he has to replace Samba, the other central defenders he has at his disposal just are not of the same quality, and certainly not of the quality to win either the Russian Premier League or the Europa League. If you compare Anzhi’s current central defenders to those of the other title contenders, they look threadbare. Joao Carlos is a solid player, but the idea of either Ali Gadzhibekov or Ewerton (or the full-back Tagirbekov, who replaced Joao Carlos in the middle in the 1-1 draw with Lokomotiv Moscow in November) replacing Chris Samba next to him is laughable. Gadzhibekov’s last appearance for Anzhi was in the Russian Cup quarter final against Krylja Sovetov. Anzhi won the game 2-1 thanks to a last minute winner from teenager Serderov, but looked dodgy at the back all game, dropping too deep, and conceding a goal after nine minutes, thanks in no small part to a lack of understanding between Joao Carlos and Gadzhibekov. Ewerton’s only appearance for Anzhi since his £4.75 million move from Coimbra in Brazil came in the 4-2 victory against Mordovia Saransk back in late August, a game littered with errors. Although Anzhi looked confident going forward, they looked fragile at the back; both goals can be put down to poor positioning, movement and mistakes from both Joao Carlos and Ewerton.

Guus Hiddink’s plan in replacing Chris Samba seems to be neither of these players. The signing of left-back Andrei Eschenko from Lokomotiv Moscow this month would indicate that Rasim Tagirbekov will move to the centre to play alongside Joao Carlos. Whether that will work or not, we will wait and see, but the stakes are certainly high with a title bid ongoing and a Europa League tie against Hannover 96 quickly approaching. The new partnership needs to gel quickly, or Guus needs a top class replacement, in order to continue their impressive season. Samba’s are big boots to fill, Anzhi may well crumble since his departure.

Whilst writing this, news broke that Anzhi have had a £35 million bid accepted by Shakhtar Donetsk for Willian. One thing is for sure, Anzhi Makhachkhala are never boring.

Yann M’Vila, Rubin Kazan and QPR

The decision of Yann M’Vila, banned French international midfielder and notorious troublemaker, to move to Rubin Kazan has been met with a certain amount of consternation in the English press and on the terraces of one of the clubs reportedly interested in taking him on, Queens Park Rangers. I will admit that the rumours of QPR’s interest are not wholly surprising, M’Vila fits the bill entirely for a QPR signing – a misfit ex-international with personal problems and high wage demands – more surprising is the apparent unwillingness of Harry Redknapp and Tony Fernandes to match Rubin’s offer. M’Vila’s lack of form and well documented behavioural misdemeanours make him a risk, but with Harry looking to add a bit of steel to a rather lightweight midfield (Shaun Wright-Phillips looks like a ghost of the player he was in the early and mid-Noughties, but I suppose that’s what spending years sitting on the bench for Chelsea, Manchester City and QPR do to you after an incredibly promising early career) he would seem to be a qualified risk in a squad which has plenty of lesser players with worse psychological and behavioural problems in the dressing room already. As much as many, myself included, admire Shaun Derry’s leadership and workmanship, one would not be surprised if Harry brings in another holding midfielder in the final days of this transfer window – and a former target of Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal would seem to be right up his street. However Rubin’s offer (£10.56 million according to transfermarkt.co.uk) vastly outweighs the bids of QPR and Everton, both reported to be between £6 and £7 million.

M’Vila’s decision to choose ‘lowly’ Rubin Kazan over the ‘might and history’ of QPR seems to have caused a certain amount of disbelief among English football fans. Of course, the old cliché that he has moved for the love of money was the first to be brought up. The answer to this complaint is: yes, he has. Of course he has, but would moving to QPR not also be for the money? You can level this criticism at M’Vila as much as you like, but just remember that I’m sure Jose Bosingwa and his Champions League medal are at Loftus Road for the sheer love of the club. However in this situation it is not necessarily a criticism. With a lack of playing time and continuous scandals at Rennes, M’Vila was always going to move sooner rather than later in a bid to resurrect his flagging young career. Why Rubin rather than QPR? Well, I can think of a number of reasons. Firstly, the Russian Premier League is not the footballing wasteland that English fans seem to perceive it as. Rubin, a relatively rich club with a squad of solid, current internationals (including Turkish star Gokdeniz Karadeniz, former Chelsea youngster Gokhan Tore and Finnish-Russian brothers Alexei and Roman Eremenko) are sitting in seventh, realistically fighting for fourth place by the end of the season, showing how far the league has improved in recent times. Consider the acquisition of two sought after internationals in Axel Witsel and Hulk by Zenit, and Russian football’s profile has rarely been higher. Add to this that Rubin are one of the few clubs in all of Europe that have beaten Barcelona at the Nou Camp in recent years, and this year’s excellent Europa League form (including a 3-0 demolition of Inter Milan, which has set up a tricky looking tie against Atletico Madrid), and the attraction of the Premier League’s bottom club looks negligible. This is key: at Rubin, M’Vila will play European football, at QPR, M’Vila will play backs-to-the-wall, relegation football. Both offer a lot of money. He chose Rubin.

Another factor to think about in the transfer of Yann M’Vila to Rubin Kazan may be the culture of the two clubs, as strange as that may sound. The young Frenchman’s current disciplinary problems with the French Football Association (FFF) surround his and other members of a French under-21s squad travelling to a nightclub in Paris while supposedly on duty with the team. If I were close to Yann M’Vila, I would certainly support his move to Kazan over London. Having not been to Kazan myself I am not fit to judge, although as a friend of mine who visited last year told me: ‘It’s a building site, a nice building site, but a building site nonetheless’. London, on the other hand, is a city with copious nightclubs and distractions from a football player’s vocation – playing football. Not only this, but also QPR is hardly a helpful environment for a young, unsettled player trying to rebuild his career. From the terrible training habits and rampant egotism of Adel Taarabt to the hordes of washed-up ex-England strikers perpetually injured, from the behind-the-scenes walking disasters depicted in the excellent documentary ‘The Four Year Plan’ to bloated ex-players on £80,000 a week, QPR is not an environment to help you out of a career hole. Add to this the fact that the French media is probably second only to the English media in terms of victimising rich, young footballers. Kazan, on the other hand, is a growing club in a growing league, challenging for trophies and featuring on the European stage regularly.

In response to the keyboard warriors of the world: Rubin fans are not known for racism. Russia is a big country. Cultures and attitudes are vastly different across the country.

The job of rebuilding Yann M’Vila’s career is certainly an achievable task, at only 22 years old he has time on his side, and has a good deal of experience. Russian football has been known to sap talent out of a man if he cannot settle, but rebuilding in a growing league whilst playing European football without the constant eye of the English or French media could be just what the doctor ordered for M’Vila. Becoming one of QPR’s expensive, relegation-bound journeymen is not.